Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, ”Can a Colleague ‘Donate’ My Lost Money?”
I work in a public hospital, in a poor neighborhood. In between seeing patients, I placed $50 in my pocket and went to use the public bathroom. I then went to buy lunch, and realized I lost my money. I ran back to the bathroom, but the money was gone. I went to security, but it was not turned in. I later told the story at a staff dinner. The next day, a staff member told me I would be happy to hear the money went to a good cause: her “down-and-out” patient, a struggling 25-year-old woman, with a bad knee injury, who had lost her job. Apparently she came in to our department to declare how happy she was to find $50 the previous day, and felt her luck was finally turning around. The timing of her coming into the bathroom was exact. My colleague said she was about to tell her she might know the money’s owner, but felt she did not want to spoil the woman’s happiness. She also said, knowing me and how I care for my patients who are needy (I often help patients buy needed equipment), that I would want the woman to have the money. Did she do the right thing? NAME WITHHELD, TORONTO
My response: Calling the behavior right or wrong is just labeling it with people’s opinion. The woman believes what she did was right. You aren’t sure. Different people will have different opinions.
I suggest to you that you may help yourself more by figuring out what you are going to do. No matter anyone’s opinion about what she did, it’s in the past, which you can’t change. What do you plan to do about it now besides labeling the behavior?
I would use the occasion to build your relationship with your colleague and the patient. The woman who found the money didn’t know whose it was. The colleague, when she heard about it, didn’t whose it was. Once she knew, she could have told the patient, but so could you. You can hope others take responsibility to do things that benefit you, but I like how things go when I take responsibility for things that relate to me.
In other words, you have all the power the woman does and you probably care more about your money than she does. Instead of asking her to do your dirty work, you can do it yourself. You’ll have to do the dirty work of risking making they happy woman unhappy, but you can use the occasion to practice your communication skills to keep the woman happy. I feel good returning something someone lost even if I would have liked keeping it. You can try creating that feeling in her. Or, when faced with having to do something difficult, you might choose to let the woman keep the money, now by your volition instead of blaming your colleague never asked to be involved anyway.
The New York Times response:
Kenji Yoshino: No, clearly the colleague did not do the right thing here. The individual who lost the $50 may be altruistic, but ultimately it was her $50 and therefore her decision whether or not to express her altruism with the $50. It was not the colleague’s right to make that decision for the letter writer. To do so makes assumptions about how other people will behave, and then do things on their behalf that they might or might not do.
Jack Shafer: I would also be pretty critical of the staff member. She or he is signaling concern for somebody, but that concern is not coming out of their own pocket. The relative poverty of the finder and her great happiness at her discovery constitute no ethical claim on the money. Where the money should have gone was some sort of lost and found, with the promise that if no one claimed it, the finder would be the rightful owner.
Amy Bloom: I’m surprised that the staff member didn’t at least mention that the money probably had an owner and was not a gift from the universe. Not spoiling her happiness is not a reason to give somebody the green light to take money that doesn’t belong to them. The staff member could have informed the young woman that the owner had been found. I don’t feel that the staff member acted ethically either in advising the patient, the 25-year-old who had the bad knee injury, or in pushing the letter writer into the corner of being obliged to turn over the $50.
Yoshino: Also, if the colleague truly had been sure that the letter writer would want the woman to have the money, then the same result would transpire if she had told the woman that the letter writer might be the owner of the money. This shows some lack of confidence in what the letter writer would have done. The colleague is really taking the decision out of her hands.
Bloom: As well as giving poor advice to the young woman with the knee injury.
Shafer: I agree. But this story does appeal to the softie in me. This hard-luck case who is injured and unemployed and absolutely delighted at discovering this money — it might flood your brain with neurotransmitters and make you want to be part of that joy and not tap into your ethical sense of what is the right thing to do.
Yoshino: In the same way that Aristotle says you can’t have courage without having fear, I would say you can’t have ethics unless you can overcome those neurotransmitters flooding your brain.
My wife and I recently stayed at a very good hotel in South Beach, Miami. We were generally happy there until our third day, when our room was broken into and we were burglarized. Luckily, our out-of-pocket losses were only $100 or so. The hotel moved us to another room but seemed to show little concern beyond that. In the end, I made a huge stink, and they refunded us one-half of our stay. I made no promise to not mention this in the online reviews of the property. My wife wants us to post online reviews about the burglary and the hotel’s response. I think it’s unethical to do this after they more than made good on our misfortune. Who is right? R.S., BROOKLYN
My response: Again with the labeling! Who picks these letters? Why do you, letter-picker, pick so many letters about labeling? Why do you reinforce this idea that someone can determine right and wrong for others, as if there was some absolute?
Back to the letter-writer, obviously you believe you are right and she believes she is right. What’s the point in asking a third opinion? If it goes your way, she can find another to go her way and vice versa. Where does that get you? Do you think you can decide right and wrong by majority opinion? Do you think the authority of newspaper columnists determines right and wrong?
You didn’t ask what the two of you should do about your disagreement. As a leadership teacher and coach, that’s the issue to me. You didn’t mention if you wanted to lead. Since you’re asking newspaper columnists to lead you, I conclude you prefer following to leading.
Whether you lead or follow, what do you plan to do? I guess a simple plan would be to do what they person the New York Times says is right wants. Then you get to continue your relationship with one of you thinking they’re right and the other wrong. Doesn’t sound like how I like my relationships—polarized and full of judgment.
Your letter suggests to me that you could both achieve your goals by posting that it happened and also saying that their response more than made up for what happened, in your opinion. You could also involve the hotel in the process letting them have a say in the online review, for example.
You and your wife could also find other things more worth your time than something in the past. She sounds vindictive, which she probably doesn’t like. Could you and she address this feeling, perhaps improving your and her emotional skills to handle situations like this in the future?
The New York Times response:
Bloom: The hotel may not have been able to control or prevent the burglary, but it did have a choice about how it responded to you. Reviewing that treatment and acknowledging that it refunded half of your costs after you made a stink seems to be a good and useful review that potential guests would be interested in. If you are interested in online reviews, then this is the kind of information that people would like to have.
Yoshino: I agree, as long as the review is both accurate and complete. But if you don’t post a review, then that would also be an ethical posture to take. When the letter writer asks, “Who is right?” I would be inclined to say, “You’re both right.”
Bloom: Oh, I think the wife is right.
Yoshino: We agree that it is fully ethical to write the review. But whether or not you’re required to write the review seems to be a bone of contention.
Shafer: You are starting to veer into questions of manners, rather than ethics.
Bloom: Yes, manners and ethics are often intertwined.
Yoshino: The thing that tips me in favor of writing is the responsibility to third parties. Is it unethical to withhold this information from other people who might want to stay at this hotel if the hotel is going to take a lackadaisical attitude toward burglaries? That would make me lean toward saying that it would be ethical to write the review. I’m just not sure that I’m willing to say that it would be unethical not to write the review.
Bloom: I don’t think that everybody in the world who stays at a hotel has an ethical obligation to write a review about everything that happens there. I couldn’t stand to receive all that information.
Yoshino: So the ethical obligation is not to deluge other people with your information? But then isn’t the answer, not to be too contentious here, that both members of the couple are right?
Bloom: These seem to be quite separate things. If I’m a potential guest at the hotel, what I am most interested in is how guests were treated at the hotel during the time of their stay.
In a Walmart public restroom, I found a booklet someone placed on top of the toilet paper dispenser. From the cover drawing of an exaggerated big-eared, bucktoothed, pig-nosed defiant kid with cowlick hair and hands on his hips, I guessed the purpose of the religious tract titled, “Why Should I?” As an American, I’m hook, line and sinker into religious freedom. As an ordained pastor and certified spiritual director, I’m committed to notice and proclaim the holy. As a mom, at the baptism of my children, I promised to teach and support each child in faith. Why should I be shocked by the pamphlet? The drawn figures appeared sinister with images of ghouls, monsters with fangs and skeletons at the bedsides of sick patients threatening “screams, fire and unbearable pain,” and a concluding sentence: “And NOW you know the terrible price for not believing in Jesus.” The pamphlet described the kid with big ears as a “victim of brainwashing, with a soul to burn in fire.” I took the pamphlet, not to read it or pass it on, but because I did not want a person to be intentionally terrified for being human. And I know the harm that comes from messing with a person’s understanding of God. I was married to a fundamentalist who pointed to Scripture and verse in the Bible to prove I was an abomination to God because I cut my hair. Tell me what is ethical. Should I have left the religious tract in the public washroom? NAME WITHHELD, WISCONSIN
My response: Oh brother!
New York Times, do you realize you invite these juvenile questions by choosing so many letters of people asking others to judge for them? I’d love to see how your column and its letters changed if you focused on people taking responsibility for their actions, relationships, emotional growth, and such instead of labels and judging the unchangeable past.
I can’t help point out the irony of someone who claims herself an ordained pastor and certified spiritual director, whatever that means, saying “tell me what is ethical.” I can’t help but conclude that she’s saying that learning about supernatural things doesn’t help her figure out how to behave in the natural world. I hope learning about the supernatural helped her find happiness because it seems not to be helping her with this apparently obvious choice.
The New York Times response:
Shafer: You’re under no ethical obligation to preserve the pamphlet’s place on a dispenser, nor do ethics command you to remove it. Whatever you did, including giving it to the Walmart manager for his decision, would be O.K.
Bloom: By all means, toss the pamphlet. I don’t think that the letter writer stole it in any way. The letter writer is well within both rights and ethical behavior to toss it in the trash, because it is not a forum or a library.
Yoshino: That is the clincher for me. We had a question in an earlier podcast that asked, “If my gym supplies magazines and somebody puts a gun magazine in the stack, am I allowed to throw out the gun magazine?” And we all resoundingly came down on the side of no, you may not throw it away. The gym had created a lending library of sorts for its patrons. But Walmart is not doing that here.
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